Leadership Skills and Implementation

How To Innovate Against the Tide

By The SHARE Team

As teachers, we often have amazing ideas for the classroom, but often lack the freedom to truly pursue innovative projects in their school. Frequently, it comes down to the old refrains: “My principal won’t let me” or “People don’t want to change.” But creativity and experimentation are still possible, even against the tide. Here are 5 ways progressive educators can work through barriers, begin innovating, and advance our students’ learning experiences.

Think big, start small

So, you have a great new idea that will benefit the students, cost the school next to nothing, and parents will love the results. Sadly, no one on staff is buying in. Hefty change can be difficult to sell, especially when teachers are overworked and exhausted. If you’re up against resistance or lacking permission to jump in and innovate big, start small. “This is how teaching evolves—primarily through local tinkering (not engineering) and through steady shifts into the adjacent possible” (Goatley and Johnston, 2013). Do a micro version of your bigger plan and when you see positive outcomes, others will too. In time, they just might jump on board to scaling the work.

Pilot in your own classroom

One place to test out innovations before going large-scale is in your own classroom. Try that new assignment app. Give that reading strategy a whirl and track your results. When you’re able to show some positive outcomes, noting an idea has merit, you’re more likely to get buy-in from a bigger audience. You’re also more likely to get permission to experiment when it starts small, and if your experiment fails, you can more easily adjust and try again.

Make long-term plans

Drive-by innovation is a well-known concept in schools. A new idea comes along, there’s fanfare and urgency to jump in, but just as quickly it fades into the background. “Innovation that can be widely disseminated and shared have three core properties: Longevity: the innovation can be sustained over time; Fecundity: the innovation can be applied by different practitioners; and Copy Fidelity: that the innovation can be replicated in local conditions” (Kirkland and Sutch, 2009). In order for innovations to gain momentum, they have to be seen as long-term realities with sustainable practices, commitment, and replication possibilities. One way to do this is to create a Professional Development plan that doesn’t just train practitioners at the beginning, but revisits the work over time, supporting teachers in maintaining the innovation throughout the school year.

Use data to support your success

Utter the word “data” and you’ll likely elicit some educator groans, but with innovation, nothing speaks louder than data. And when playing the innovation game, it helps to speak the language of data. If you can prove your idea works and is worth the effort, you’re more likely to gain support. “In most cases, though, innovation is the result of iteration rather than central planning,” says Justin Reich in his piece Four Ways School Leaders Can Support Innovation (EdWeek, November 2016). Data is the evidence you need to iterate, test, and find the best pathway for innovation success. Even if you’re piloting a small project in your classroom, keep track of the results and use them to grow your project to a wider audience.

Appeal to the power of people

People drive innovation. In a school, that’s the teachers, students, and parents. A school community has to come together to make innovations work and last. If you’re leading the charge, it’s up to you to build community and convince your stakeholders to believe in both you and the work. When people perceive an innovation to be too arduous a lift, they’re less likely to see its potential benefits and agree to participate. Your community needs to believe in your idea’s “relative advantage,” a term coined by Everett Rodgers in the 1960s. This means the “degree to which an idea or product is perceived as better than the existing standard” (Burkus, 2015). It’s easy to get frustrated when people don’t see the genius of your work or trust you implicitly, but have patience. There’s so much going on in school, and any time you ask others to change, it requires kindness and finesse.

Innovation can be difficult, but when it benefits the learning experience of students, it’s very much worth it. Remember to work with your school community and not up against it. Embrace the challenge of a little resistance and prove them wrong. Real change takes courage and patience.

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